Modern Crowd Control Lessons (from Ancient Pompeii)

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Nuceria vs. Pompeii. During games between bitter rivals Pompeii and neighboring Nuceria in A.D. 59, the historian Tacitus writes of an altercation that “arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show. During an exchange of taunts...abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn.” Because of the incident, games were banned at the Pompeii stadium for 10 years (though this penalty doesn’t seem to have been enforced). This might seem to disprove Still’s notion of best practices in ancient crowd control. To the contrary, Still says. “Think of the fact they could have a sword fight in the stands, what that meant about how they had very free movement in the stands. And because of the space, people could cluster away from the small pockets of danger, preventing small incidents from becoming bigger ones.” The violence, in other words, was not a stampede or a crush. Today, nearly all crowd incidents affect the innocent, who simply can’t escape.

Respect Personal Space. There are benchmarks that Still uses and the United Kingdom has adopted for crowd densities to prevent people from getting anxious. None would have been crossed at a typical event at Pompeii stadium:

  • 2 to 3 people per square meter when moving
  • 5 people per square meter when standing or sitting
  • 6 people per square meter for up to six minutes in certain situations, such as an entrance queue, if the space is monitored.
destruction of pompeii

24 August, A.D. 79. Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to Tacitus about the day Vesuvius erupted and how Pompeii was erased from the earth. Pliny the Younger was in Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii, reading Livy. When the cloud of burning ash finally rained down on the town, he and his mother fled. “A dazed crowd follows us, preferring our plan to their own (this is what passes for wisdom in a panic),” he wrote. “Their numbers are so large that they slow our departure, and then sweep us along,” a description that sounds remarkably like a crowd crush, one that Pliny and his mother survived.

But by then, Pompeii’s Anfiteatro was gone. Its elegant geometry, its ideal use of space and its beautiful openness were smothered, and preserved, under 10 feet of hot ash and pumice.

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